Under the skin: Why do we skin third party products?

We’re demoing a new product at work from a new company that has pretty decent design skills. They pulled some of the colors and branding from our new site and made the demo look nice and slick. The skin makes the product feel like it is more connected to the look and feel of our new site.

On the surface, this feels like a good UX and brand strategy. We’re promoting greater consistency, reinforcing certain signals about layout and color, etc. I was feel good about it, until I wasn’t.

The more I sat with it, the more it started to bother me. For one thing, the skin replaces our website’s navigation with a completely different navigation, but it is in roughly the same spot. They were using colors for UI elements in ways that weren’t consistent with the website (yes, we actually tried to be consistent about things like button colors and styles). The site looks like a site that my library made, but we really only have limited responsibility for it. Are we really just passing off something as our own that isn’t?

So, I’m left feeling conflicted about the value of this type of integration. We have held up providing a consistent user experience across our web properties as a kind of holy grail of library UX. I’m interested in this as well, especially for our core services–events and catalog, for instance.

My conflicted feelings also come in the wake of launching a new site. I find myself having to track down outdated versions of the logo, seeing old color schemes lingering around. I even saw an example recently of a vendor who made something look worse to match our old web presence. The out-of-the-box product seemed much more pleasant to use.

I know there are library out there who are insisting on API-level access to content and services. Technically, this seems like a much saner approach to achieving true integration and consistent user exprience. But does every library want to shoulder this kind of burden?

So, what is the value of skinning a third party product? Is it better to leave it alone and focus on other things?